By Aaryata Agarwal & Ishika Mittal
Set in nineteenth century Bengal, the horror movie Bulbbul follows its eponymous heroine, married off as a child to a much older man, Thakur Sahab, while she ends up getting infatuated with his brother, Satyendra, who is closer in age to her. Fast forward to 20 years later, Bulbbul has grown up to be a fierce and mysterious woman; her husband has left her; Mahendra (Thakur Sahab’s twin) is dead and his wife a widow; Satya returns after five years of studying law and finds himself in conflict with Bulbbul’s confidant, Dr. Sudip. Men are mysteriously being murdered and it is rumoured to be the job of a ‘chudail’. What we see then is a tale of injustice and revenge as we go back and forth between past and present, to understand what is going on and what made Bulbbul who she is today.
What we see in Bulbbul is female vigilantism, a method also used by Bollywood time and again. Having nowhere or no one else to turn to, women take law into their own hands and fight for the justice they deserve. When watching Bulbbul, you feel as helpless as her. You revel in her smirks and sly smiles. You cheer every time she kills the wretched men around her. You feel the dread of the husband getting away and then gain closure when she takes her revenge. And yet later, you cannot help but wonder what we are we aiming for. Revenge and retribution, or justice and empowerment? What idea of justice and what idea of empowerment does this movie really convey?
From the time we are introduced to Bulbbul until we part, she comes across as a victim. Married off as a child, she is unaware of the gravity of what she has been pushed into. She then grew up in a house which moulded her to adhere to their patriarchal structures and it seemed as though she ended up internalizing it. The idea of being a victim only heightens when the makers show that she is raped after being brutally injured by her husband. This atrocity when committed against her, fragments her assumptions of the world being just and moral. Bulbbul’s innocence is lost and instead now she sees the world clearly as though she has removed the veil that society had imposed on her. This becomes a pivotal part of her identity where she seeks and then provides ‘justice’ for women around her as well. However, this saviour offers a temporary solution – victim relationship doesn’t really help to empower the victims but rather takes away their power and typecasts their identity.
What stands out is the idea of women having to become supernatural beings in order to attain something even resembling justice. The world Bulbbul takes place in is not a lawless world. References are made to the “Angrezi Kanoon” and yet the law is only concerned with male victims and so are the characters around who think of themselves as justice enablers. Like Satya has questions about men who are murdered, expresses empathy for them, thinks they deserve justice and yet we see that missing in him when it comes to the women. The idea here is that society and legal systems have often so spectacularly failed women and justice seems so unattainable that the fantasy of a wronged woman being reborn as a goddess seems like the only way to get something even close to it. It highlights a gruesome reality that women in our society are often so trapped by their circumstances that they have no one to help them get out of the rut. When trapped, dependency is natural but what is scary here is that they have to depend on a supernatural being, a “Devi”, as their last resort. It is a gutting thought about how utterly trapped women are and always have been.
Along with justice, another central aspect to the movie inspired by folklore seems to be female empowerment and their portrayal of it. The power, much like in the real world, is vested in the hands of the men and the women derive it only on the basis of how they are related to the men. Bulbbul was only able to assume charge of the house as the “Thakurain” when there was no other man around. This charge is immediately taken over by Satya as soon as he returns. He was away for five years and was unaware of the current state of affairs, and yet he without hesitation or permission takes over, reflecting the power dynamics and male entitlement in society. We realise that the only time the power she possesses is not questioned or dependent on anybody, is when she is in the fantasy world. We see Bulbbul’s disdain about her identity in the real world every time she asks not to be addressed as “Badi Bahu”. Her first action as a “liberated” woman was to kill Mahendra after which absence of all other men who thought that they had some sort of ownership of Bulbbul finally allowed her to grow into this fierce woman that we see. Reintroduction of these men and associated expectations, in the form of Satya, slowly starts to tear away the freedom she had carved for herself, showing the tragic reality of even the most empowered women. For example, Satya immediately upon his return questions Bulbbul’s morals for not keeping “parda” with Sudip, says she should be sent back “maika” and worries if his brother will take her back as if she is property. Satya, who should possess no say or control in who Bulbbul talks to, how she behaves, or how she lives, sees nothing wrong with him calling the shots for her. It is this sense of entitlement and ownership that Bulbbul can’t seem to break free of when she is the “Badi Bahu”. By position she may be superior to Satya, yet Satya seems to hold the better cards. Her alternate life as Bulbbul the “Chudail” is what allows her any kind of agency and freedom.
We also notice a shift in the power dynamics between the two bahus of the family. Once she starts controlling the affairs of the house, Bulbbul doesn’t level the playing field but rather gives into the power which in turn disempowers the possibility of change. Here the question isn’t whether Binodini should be given equal power after all her actions and evils against Bulbbul; rather, is this another instance of internalised patriarchy? When we see this shift in narrative we are quick to belittle the problem by assuming that if a woman wants equality, the onus of empowering her gender and herself is on her. This stems from the misplaced idea that empowered individuals from the losing side, who are in reality mere outliers, somehow possess the power to create the balance of the scales rather than focusing and working on the root cause of the system of injustice and how it has been created and is then followed.
What can also be questioned here is the idea of what an “empowered woman” looks like that the movie seeks to promote. It embodies strength in the action heroine only after she succumbs to the traditional male attributes, not showing the feminine archetypes as a empowered woman. The notion of empowered women here, encourages women to act in the traditionally masculine ways as a means to fight patriarchy. The movie ends up creating a narrative which conveys that femininity is less desirable as compared to masculinity. We notice the same throughout the flashbacks which allow us to compare and contrast the significant changes in Bulbbul’s character. The naive, innocent bride who rarely talked back and didn’t even laugh openly, has now transformed into someone who smokes, talks back, is stubborn, is flamboyant, openly flirts and is bolder.
In the bid to represent Bulbbul as an empowered woman that the audience root for, the movie ends up oversimplifying its characters. They are portrayed as either black or white, ignoring the reality of gray areas. Bulbbul is portrayed as a good person leaving no scope for a female hero who is not unquestionably good, possibly because the audience might not be willing to accept a female “hero” who is even slightly objectionable. Similarly, Dr. Sudip is the only good man and most other men in the story are simply bad. There is no scope for any other kind of engagement with them (except for Satya), probably out of fear of the audience not thinking of them as deserving to die. Bulbbul ends up as the kind of empowered woman the society will accept even though she’s realistically unattainable.
Bulbbul challenges a lot of social norms and expectations placed on women. It makes you question if Bulbbul was in reality a “Chudail” or a “Devi”. It is a horror movie simply because of how relatable their treatment of women is even in the real world. And, yet, one has to question not only if what Bulbbul did was truly justice, but also why she was forced to resort to it. One can love every bit of who Bulbbul evolved into and yet notice how problematic this representation of empowerment is. We must question what version of “empowered woman” are we seeking, a realistic, strong individual who has made mistakes and is flawed, or a “Devi” who has never done anything wrong?
Aaryata Agarwal & Ishika Mittal are 3rd-year law students at O.P Jindal Global University. They both identify as proud feminists and are deeply passionate about issues of human rights, social justice, and empowerment. They are also serial binge-watchers and strongly believe that movies have the power to influence and mold the way people think.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.